Bad Words features Jason Bateman as Guy Trillby, a man on a mission to be the lone adult competitor in a prominent national spelling bee. But while Guy initially appears as a petty, immature man, his relationship with the news reporter funding his crusade and the young boy he befriends along the way reveal a true method and purpose to his supposed madness.
The short of it is that Bad Words is a strange little film that manages to be wholly absurd in its premise, genuine in its drama, and both subtle and obscene with its comedy.
Jason Bateman not only stars as the aggressively unlikable grown man in a children’s spelling competition, he’s also the talented director behind the camera. And while it isn’t his first time in the director’s chair–in fact, his credits include episodes of various television shows since the late 80s–Bad Words is his first feature film. Not that anyone would know this without taking a quick look at his IMDB page, of course. Because Bateman’s work looks and feels like something from a seasoned director. The pacing is tight, but not too quick. The performances from both Bateman and his supporting cast are about as flawless as it gets, especially for how frequent the movie shifts gears. The humor always serves to accentuate the film’s oddly compelling story–and any given scene in it–rather than dominate the experience. It’s easily one of the best examples of a “dramedy” that not only balances the comedic with the dramatic, but at times blurs the line between the two.
Of course, Bateman didn’t manage all of this on his own. It certainly helps that he had a great cast who could not only bring out the best of the material given to them, but handle those aforementioned frequent gear-shifts.
For example, there’s a point in Bad Words where Kathryn Hahn’s Jenny Widgeon, the reporter backing and covering Guy’s mysterious crusade, attempts to confront Guy about some information she’s gathered regarding his story. This is a very brief scene set in a stairwell outside the hotel where they’re both staying. Guy’s looking to return to his room for the night and Jenny is there waiting for him to return. But rather than having some heated conversation that devolves into an argument, or some heartfelt moment where the two grow closer, the whole thing is quickly resolved by Guy’s desire to avoid the whole thing altogether. But in this brief exchange, Hahn impressively expresses the entire spectrum of human emotion. She starts off anxiously excited to share what she’s learned, but she’s also concerned with how Guy might react. And as the scene plays out, she grows hurt by his refusal to talk to her. Not just upset and insulted, but wounded by the way he makes it clear that he’s willing to use her but not listen to what she has to say. She’s not just the selfish reporter looking for a story. Nor is she some love-struck puppy chasing after the bad boy with a mysterious past. She’s simply a complex individual infatuated by a complex mess of a man.
And really, this applies to every performance in the film.
Bateman himself plays Guy as a man with a lot of deep-rooted anger. But at the same time, he’s wholly in control of himself. When confronted by the various parents and staff furious with his actions and behaviors, he never loses his cool. He does use snarky, crude humor to cut at people with his words, to pull them off the high horse they place themselves atop of. But he never raises his voice. He never gets overly excited or creates a scene. Bateman presents a nuanced, complicated character rather than yet another flat caricature of a bitter man with a potty mouth and a chip on his shoulder.
And the same goes for performances from Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney, who play the enraged officials trying to put an end to Guy’s shenanigans. Both are aggressively and actively opposed to Guy, and even go to questionable lengths to stop him. But while their approach is suspect, they’re simply trying to appeal to many angry parents and maintain some degree of integrity to a respected, decades old event. They’re antagonistic, but not cartoonish villains.
Even Rohan Chand (along with the other handful of child performers featured in Bad Words), get a lot mileage from their limited experience. Chand is the sweet, innocent boy who befriends Guy. But while he’s young and naive, he’s not impishly so. He’s not put off by Guy’s nasty attitude or swearing. He’s not closed minded or prudish. He’s just a smart, curious ten year old boy hoping to make friends.
If there’s a flaw to be found in Bad Words, it might be that its somewhat unique style and tone could put off quite a few people. Because like its characters, the movie is more than it appears. It’s raunchy and crude, yet sensitive. Sweet, yet abrasive. Straight-face and dry, yet also a little over-the-top.
But while this is certainly a good thing–while Bad Words itself is a good movie on all accounts–it’s difficult to say what sort of audience would find it enjoyable. Those looking for a more raunchy comedy are going to wonder why there’s all this layered, touchy-feely stuff surrounding the jokes and crude language. Those invested in the mystery of Guy, the drama around him, and the odd, but touching friendship at the center of it all are likely to be put off by the abundant crude language and humor. But if you’re looking for a movie with a good heart, a rough exterior, and a healthy dose of self-awareness, then I suggest you CHILL with Bad Words.